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My mother owns a wicker basket overflowing with scarves.

Scarves bred from the finest of Turkish silk. Scarves clustered every which way in an amalgam of jeweled reds and burnt oranges, stitched in workshops carved out of the walls of Marrakesh. Scarves reared by women in the Atlas Mountains with children on their backs and love in their hands.

Their ranks are nearly infinite, their origins far from humble. But from a young age as a first-generation American, I found that they were intended only to be worn discreetly during the five short intervals a day that mark the Islamic pillar of prayer, scarves we gradually slip off our heads on flights back from Morocco, finally coming to rest on our shoulders as the plane touches down in Detroit.

The author and her grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Sarah R. Akaaboune)
The author and her grandmother. (Photo courtesy of Sarah R. Akaaboune)

They are scarves my mother is far too afraid to wear to her job, scarves that spend hours tightly knotted beneath my 18-year-old chin but that come undone like clockwork in the light of day, because I am too ashamed to wear them outside my own home.

And ultimately, they are scarves that have lost their meaning, because on this land they no longer serve as hijabs, meant to be worn as the pinnacle of religious piety and modesty. Instead they have become accessories, tied around the handles of handbags or curled around our necks to ward off the brunt of winter. They are seldom on our heads, because in this country — with its warped perception of Islam, and particularly of its women — they are not supposed to be.

Herein lies the hardest lesson America has ever taught me: The choice to wear a hijab here can redefine a woman.

Here, someone who wears hijab assumes a one-dimensional identity. She is no longer a teacher, a mother or a health-care professional. Rather, in due time, she is too often reduced to a simple alias: Muslim Girl. Through a lengthy process of trial and error, I learned that Muslim Girl wasn’t suited for overcrowded public schools, where students tend to point and stare at anything out of the ordinary. She wasn’t designed for white picket fences, emerald-green lawns or golden retrievers named Max. She wasn’t fashioned for blue jeans, apple pie or the Grand Canyon.

There are enough Muslims in my county to line Michigan Stadium end-to-end for Eid prayer. But they aren’t where I grew up. Their sons and daughters aren’t in my classrooms, their fathers aren’t in my grocery stores, their mothers aren’t in my parks or coffee shops, and their families aren’t in my America. Where I grew up, I am one of few Muslims of color.

It’s a reality rooted in self-preservation, the parental instinct to ensure the highest rate of success for all offspring, to protect their children from a childhood like mine. A childhood of cracking terrorist jokes for laughs, of girls poking fun at my lunches and my father’s accent, while their mothers forget to include mine in email chains, brunches and birthday invites, year after year after year. A childhood of being the only Muslim on any given day in any given room.

And now, on the brink of adulthood, I feel as if I have been left with a choice. Because adulthood, to me, means coming to terms with every twist and spiral of one’s DNA. It means the retirement of the perfectly veneered persona I have so painstakingly crafted over the years, a bitter product of the assimilation game. That version of myself is peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches and milk, pin-straight hair. She only speaks English. She is American enough.

As one of the most profound signifiers of Islam, a hijab carries weight: Intertwined within its threads are the expectations of what it means to be a Muslim woman. In time, to so many — to peers, to teachers, to neighbors — I, too, will become discernible first and foremost by my religion, perceived by what I seem to be rather than what I am. I am afraid. I am afraid of all I have to lose.

But my mother owns a wicker basket overflowing with scarves. Scarves from every corner of the world.

Scarves waiting to be worn by me.

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